The Pen’s Power: A Guest Post by Marybeth Holleman

We’re writing another chapter in the most well-known and long-standing environmental battle in Alaska: the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is a part of the world that looms large in my imagination, but not through personal, on-the-ground experience. I know the Arctic Refuge only through literature, most of it nonfiction.

When talk turns to the Arctic Refuge, I remember a scene from Glendon Brunk’s YearningWild: a young man in an observation tower looks west at the slope and its “surreal and sinister” tumble of industrial development, then looks east toward the refuge, to unbroken tundra and the call of a yellow-billed loon—and then heeds that call, leaves that tower and walks east. Then what rises to mind is BeingCaribou, about a couple’s five-month, thousand-mile walk to follow the Porcupine caribou herd throughout their migration. And I recall the first scene in Karen Jettmar’s essay “Finding Refuge,” where she crawls out of her tent one morning to see a wolf on the other side of the Kongakut River.

There are many other stories; the Refuge is probably the most written-about place in all of Alaska. From Two in the Far North to Seasons of Life andLand: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge  to ArcticRefuge: A Circle of Testimony, this place has inspired an entire canon of literature.

And this is the power of literature: that it can transport us to another time or place, that we feel as if we’re right there, too, walking beside that caribou herd. Good literature allows us to know, and care deeply about, places, characters, and events that may only ever exist in our imagination. It can drive straight to the heart.
I’ve written here before about art and activism, and the ways in which we can (and, I believe, always do, whether consciously or not) weave them together. But let me say it again: we as writers cannot overestimate the power of that pen in our hands, that keyboard under our fingers.

I’m reminded of AldoLeopold’s work and the insight that, for environmentalists, fights are never over until they’re lost. Say there’s a field you love, whether it’s because of an endangered butterfly or because you just love it as it is. Say there’s a developer wants to pave it, or build on it. Think of that Joni Mitchell song: they paved paradise, put up a parking lot. As long as it’s the field you love, there’s always the threat of someone wanting to make it into something else.

Then along comes The Wilderness Act—the most permanent protection we as a nation have. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan, three remaining areas of the Arctic Refuge could now become wilderness, including the coastal plain, where all those caribou calve, where there’s more polar bear denning than anywhere else in Alaska, the place that’s called the refuge’s biological heart. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, here on the 50thanniversary of the Arctic Refuge designation.

So I’m asking all you writers, with the power of that keyboard under your fingers, to answer this call. Alternatives C and E recommend wilderness designation for the coastal plain; Alternative E is more comprehensive. Go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, or to an easy-to-read summary. Written comments will be taken until 15 November.

And sometimes the call is closer to home, for places we actually do know by the soles of our feet. For those of us in southcentral Alaska: a new draft Chugach State Parkmanagement plan is out for public comments until 31 October. There’s lots of pressures for development; they even want to build a road into the park, starting at the Glen Alps parking lot. If you don’t want to wade through the whole document (and it doesn’t read like a good book) then contact a local group like the Alaska QuietRights Coalition.

Marybeth Holleman is author of Heart of the Sound and co-editor of Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment. Her essays, articles, and poems have been published in a wide range of journals, magazines, and anthologies. She has taught creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and has led intensive writing workshops across the state. 

3 thoughts on “The Pen’s Power: A Guest Post by Marybeth Holleman”

  1. A road into Chugach State Park?? Who are these morons? Do they think somehow Anchorage's crown jewel of recreation and wilderness, widely noted in pretty much all media coverage of the city, would be made better by a road?? Sheesh. Thanks for the heads up for those of us who don't live in Southcentral. I'll definitely be checking out both plans today.

  2. Well said, and indeed, we need you wonderful writer folks to weigh in strongly on behalf of the Refuge, Chugach State Park, and all things wild and wonderful here on the Lost Frontier. Thanks for doing so.

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